The creation of the Arms Trade Treaty, which aims to control the international trade of conventional weapons and reduce “human suffering,” marks a solid achievement for the United Nations this year in its primary role of securing peace worldwide. And so it went to great lengths on June 3 to promote the success at special events as the treaty opened for signature at New York headquarters.
The treaty quickly won over 67 signers, more than the 50 required for it to take effect, once countries ratify it individually. The signers ranged from Albania to Mali, Netherlands to Uruguay, with just two of the five permanent members of the Security Council, Britain and France, joining up and leaving China, Russia and the United States as bystanders.
“Today, we open for signature the landmark Arms Trade Treaty,” Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, said at the signing, where dignitaries wielded pens. “As we do, we recognize that the treaty itself has opened a door of hope to millions of women, men and children who live in deprivation and fear because of the poorly controlled international arms trade and the proliferation of deadly weapons.”
The treaty, which took about 20 years of negotiating and campaigning for it to materialize, was passed by consensus in the General Assembly in April after failing in July. It has been proclaimed the cure-all to the free-floating, fatal aspect of the unregulated weapons trade that supporters say helps incite conflicts and affects women and children by a vast majority. The weapons land easily in the hands of warlords, pirates, terrorists and other criminals, thus destabilizing entire regions at once.
Some estimates put the number of people killed each year from the flow of the weapons at half a million, while up to 875 million arms are said to be circulating globally. They range from attack helicopters to battle tanks and missile launchers, the types of weapons being used in the Syrian war.
Skeptics, of course, question how well the treaty will be monitored and carried out, but on June 3, naysayers held back. Major countries endorsed the treaty in April, including the United States, which was a co-sponsor of the pact. The US singled out the treaty’s potential ability to bring accountability to the trade of small arms and light weapons, an $80 billion market annually. The country is the world’s largest exporter of these arms, and winning two-thirds of the vote in the Senate for ratification could be an uphill battle for supporters.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement on June 3 that “we look forward to signing it as soon as the process of conforming the official translations is completed satisfactorily,” which may explain why the US did not sign it at the opening ceremony. The treaty requires the countries that ratify it to carry out strict controls — of the kind the US already has in place, Kerry said — on the transfer of conventional arms globally and should instill stronger international cooperation against black market arms merchants, he said.
Proof of the treaty’s popularity was reiterated at a UN press briefing in which Peter Woolcott, the Australian ambassador to the UN and the top negotiator behind the treaty, reminded the media that the pact had been adopted in the 193-member General Assembly with 154 votes in favor, 3 against (Iran, North Korea and Syria) and 23 abstentions. Russia and China were among the abstainers, while India and Saudi Arabia, major importers of conventional weapons, also abstained.